What the Midterm Results Really Mean to Voters

Readers across the political spectrum share surprising assessments of last week’s midterms.

Person in baseball cap and mask voting, black-and-white
AP; The Atlantic

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.


Last week I asked readers to share their election thoughts.

Anna weighed in on her state’s governor:

Okay, true-confessions time from Florida: I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, and I voted straight Democrat this election and always have. But I don’t hate Ron DeSantis. I dislike his culture-warrior crap, but otherwise he’s been a really effective governor. He was right about COVID; his policies at the time worked out well. “His” legislature came through with raises for teachers, first responders, and state workers. He threw a lot of money and resources at environmental concerns and storm relief. The state economy is cranking; the budget is balanced. Medical marijuana is booming. The state-university system is flourishing. He’s always on the move, extremely visible and interactive. Notwithstanding some of the red meat he throws to the base, his actual policy moves work out pretty well for the general public. It’s really made me rethink my priorities about adherence to political platforms that check all my personal preferences versus looking at what and how much actually gets done. Effectiveness is becoming more compelling, purity less so.

Jon praised the Sunshine State’s election infrastructure:

Florida should be required to go around the country and teach everyone how to run an election. Florida is a massive state of nearly 22 million people, composed of multiple large cities as well as rural hinterlands. It is socioeconomically and racially diverse, and it is thoroughly bilingual with large Spanish-speaking populations. And yet, Florida manages to tally almost all of its votes within a few hours of polls closing. We are never left wondering what is going on or speculating on how many ballots are left and where they are coming from or anything. The whole shebang is done and dusted in one evening. Whatever it is that Florida is doing, the rest of the country should emulate it.

Harold, who dislikes Ron DeSantis, is tired of the culture wars:

The 2022 midterm election, for me, was about decency, and regardless of how the uncalled races shake out, decency won. It is my hope moving forward that both parties will move on from the culture wars and focus on delivering stability, peace, and prosperity. In reality, the Democratic Party can more readily do so.

John Fetterman in Pennsylvania showed how progressive candidates can win if they focus on how their policies can improve everyone’s lot in life while not overreaching and alienating voters with extreme and unpopular positions. Paired with moderates, these candidates can form a durable coalition that delivers for the American people, while emphasizing respect and human dignity.

Unfortunately I do not see a clear path forward for Republicans. As much as the right wishes DeSantis will be their standard bearer, I just cannot see the divorce from Donald Trump going well for the party.

Moreover, in his own way, DeSantis represents the same rot. I am not sure voters would accept the Florida model nationally, especially with its focus on picking cultural winners using state power, forcing companies into submission, and threatening freedom by banning books and attacking free speech. Although popular among a third of the party’s base, such pugilism is a turnoff for moderate voters who want to see a return to decency in America.

Jaleelah fretted about all the people who stayed home on Election Day:

Why has no one been talking about voter turnout?

In most states, voter turnout was down from 2018 and 2020. Why should Democrats be proud of winning the Kansas governorship by 15,000 votes when less than half of the state showed up? Why is Ron Johnson’s Senate victory in Wisconsin only a footnote when Democrats could’ve flipped the seat by motivating a couple thousand more voters to turn up to the polls?

The media is rejoicing at the Democrats’ victories. I understand that everyone’s breathing a sigh of relief, but I worry that people are attributing the results of the midterms to the wrong causes. I believe that the Democrats only won because the working-class Americans who voted for [Barack] Obama and Trump were too tired to show up.

It is a good thing that working-class voters are realizing that Trump will not save them. It is a bad thing that Democrats are assuming they’re in the clear. When another motivating figure like Ron DeSantis comes along in 2024, those voters will come back to the polls. Analysts have known for years that the group of people who swing from voting to not voting is far more crucial than the group that swings from Democrat to Republican, but politicians can’t seem to get that through their head.

Democrats should heed the midterms as a warning. They should start preparing now to motivate the real swing voters to support them in 2024.

August opined on efforts to protect legal abortion: “Changing our representative democracy through elections is like trying to steer the Titanic away from that newly discovered iceberg,” he argued, “but messy direct democracy through ballot initiatives in five states protected women’s rights in their constitutions.”

Meredith reacted to a season of campaign ads by fantasizing about turning the tables:

For weeks, on social media, in my emails, and on the TV, I had to pause my intended activity to scroll past or sit through a campaign ad. “Can I get your support?” they constantly asked us.

But what I want to ask is: Can we get theirs?

Half jokingly, I suggested to a friend that before any gathering of our elected officials, they should be forced to sit through taped messages of voters asking them for their “support.” I mean real productions: video messages with expert lighting and heartwarming soundtracks from Us, the Real People, who can speak to the impact on our lives. And they should be forced to sit through it, just as we have been.

Ben is heartened by ticket splitting:

I think the crossover votes are very interesting. I live in Georgia and there were many people who voted for the Republican governor, Brian Kemp, who didn’t vote for the Republican Senate candidate, Herschel Walker. I think it shows the decline of Donald Trump’s influence on the party.

Kemp and Brad Raffensberger (Georgia’s secretary of state) notoriously stood up to the former president’s request that Raffensberger “find” the necessary votes to change the 2020 election outcome in Georgia. Walker, on the other hand, is Trump’s handpicked Senate candidate, and many Georgia voters refused to fall in line, even with the balance of power in the Senate potentially at stake. I am hopeful that this means there are still voters who believe that character and principles matter. And for that, I am proud to be a Georgian!

MC believes that Trump hurt the Republican Party in this election:

The GOP was set to have a Red wave, but Donald Trump got in the way. Trump had been pretty quiet until about six months ago. Then he started being seen and heard in the news. He and his minions don’t understand that a majority of Americans, including many in the GOP, do NOT want Trump in any way shape or form to be running our nation. Had Trump not endorsed candidates or gotten involved with primarying members of Congress that he didn’t like, I believe the GOP would have been far more successful.  

Generally, midterms are a referendum on the party in charge, which at present is the Democrats. By sticking his nose into the election, Trump managed to make the midterm about himself and the MAGA version of the GOP. Just as in 2020, the nation said NO.   

CG believes COVID played a significant role in the midterms:

COVID didn’t affect people equally. If you didn’t have a close family member who died or was hospitalized, and you don’t work in health care, then you likely felt the biggest impact of COVID in business or, particularly, school closures. (I live in a deep-blue area; my kids are 10 and 14, and they did remote or hybrid learning for almost the entire ’20–’21 school year.) The evidence seems to suggest that Kemp, DeSantis, [Kim] Reynolds, and [Greg] Abbott were correct to aggressively reopen schools and Democrats and teachers unions were wrong. In contrast, on vaccines, Republicans mostly modulated between hesitancy and fear mongering. That lack of leadership led to many excess deaths and illness.

I would guess that for the less-partisan voter, getting schools and businesses open was more important than a successful vaccination campaign. They themselves were often vaccinated. If someone else didn’t vaccinate, that was the unvaccinated person’s problem and responsibility, whereas having kids virtually learning at home was their own problem.

I see the culture-war stuff on race and gender in schools as effective only because nonpartisan parents are already frustrated by distance learning, hybrid learning, and COVID protocols. They know that schooling hasn’t been satisfactory, that their children are suffering. I don’t know if they would be opposed to discussions of race or gender in school in normal times. But during the pandemic, it seemed like schools were losing their focus on the essentials. And so schools became an issue for more than the most partisan voters.

Josh remarked on the results in his home state:

In Michigan, the state legislature (House and Senate) flipped to Democratic control for the first time in 40 years. The margin is razor thin in both bodies. This was the first election that our Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission drew the lines, making races actually competitive. The GOP had aggressively gerrymandered the state in the past. The Trump-endorsed gubernatorial, attorney general, and secretary of state candidates all lost by 10-plus points. These candidates absolutely hurt the downballot races.

A Dem trifecta in Michigan could have a big impact—repealing Right to Work legislation from the Rick Snyder era, meaningful action on guns (the GOP legislature debated and voted on zero bills after the 2021 Oxford High School shooting). There is a very real chance Dems lose the state House in 2024. A 56–54 split is tight. But competitive districts are good for democracy.

Legislators will have to get things done; their seats are not safe. They have to be responsive to their constituencies.

Jonathan perceives a national fever breaking:

Something snapped. I think a lot of people feel it. America returned to the realm of the reasonable. MAGA will rage.

It did not take three days for the former president to attack the single Republican who was most successful Tuesday. Donald Trump has the power to destroy the Republican Party, but not the American system and way of life. A great middle won this week and is still winning. It’ll take their party to achieve it, but by God, they have it.

The next several months will be among the most interesting in American history. There is a true chance to extricate this great American cancer.

In contrast, DE believes that Trump’s national influence looms larger than ever:

I’m not sharing in the sense of jubilation over the unexpectedly modest gains made by the Trumpian right. What do I mean? I rather suspect that Trumpism has captured the American political imagination, such that even dyed-in-the-wool liberals, who fancy themselves opposed to everything Trump stands for and represents, unthinkingly genuflect to Trumpism and even work to enshrine it in policy.

As an Ohio voter, two contests spring immediately to mind that speak to the dominance of Trumpism in American politics. The first is the contest for U.S. Senator between Tim Ryan and J. D. Vance, which I think shows Trumpism on the ascent despite the race being closer than expected. A lot of left/liberal analyses of Ryan got a great deal wrong by deemphasizing or explaining away the very essence of his campaign: his rabidly anti-China posturing, by which Ryan sought to out-Trump Vance by going all-in on Trump’s vision of decoupling from China in everything but in name. I would argue that, while Trump definitely lost the 2020 election, he nonetheless won the policy debate on China even in the eyes of his nominal opponents, who have now indeed taken it upon themselves to implement Trump’s vision of decoupling in his stead. Little wonder, then, that the contest between Ryan and Vance was as close as it was: The U.S. Senate contest was merely one between different styles of Trumpian politics.

The second contest that comes to mind is a ballot initiative amending the Ohio Constitution to make citizenship a requirement for voter eligibility (noncitizens were granted the right to vote in local elections in 1917). That it passed by over 77 percent of the vote speaks to the willingness across the political spectrum to alienate and ostracize noncitizens in the public sphere, which reflects a broad and bipartisan (yet distinctively Trumpian) consensus about the place, or lack thereof, for the noncitizen in the body politic. The measure appears to be a reaction to a 2019 referendum that passed in the village of Yellow Springs allowing noncitizens to participate in local elections. The referendum notwithstanding, Secretary of State Frank LaRose objected that allowing noncitizens to vote went against both the U.S. Constitution and the Ohio Constitution, and he forbade the local board of elections from accepting voter registrations from noncitizens.

Now one might have imagined that, if the Ohio Constitution already barred noncitizens from voting, an amendment to that effect would be totally unnecessary. Alas, LaRose (making an official statement in favor of the initiative) maintained that cities allowing noncitizens the right to vote in local elections “are undermining the value of what it means to be an American.” It’s a rather remarkable assertion of principle (or prejudice), acknowledging as it does that the ideals of citizenship and Americanism are defined by the act of excluding noncitizens like immigrants from our society and institutions for being insufficiently like “us” (however “we” construe ourselves). These ideals of citizenship and Americanism function not only to exclude noncitizens from the public sphere but also to underwrite the justifications for that very exclusion.

There’s more to be said about the ballot initiative and the motivations behind it, but from how much support it garnered in the election, one simply cannot deny that the demonization of noncitizens extends far beyond the fringes of the Trumpian right; it has captured even the political imagination of those right-thinking liberals who would prominently advertise in their front lawns, in 15 different languages no less, that “Hate has no home here.”

Chadd describes his frustrations as a dissenter in South Florida:

I’ve lived in South Florida all my life, and despite pundits and folks who don’t live here calling it a swing state, I’ve never felt like it was one. Maybe it’s because I’m 34 and I’ve only ever really seen mostly Republican control down here. It’s unfortunate. Solidly red. I can’t even begin to express my disappointment with the Democratic Party and its operations (or lack thereof) in Florida. My inbox was blown up daily with emails for candidates from all over the country, but I bet I got at most maybe one or two for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Charlie Crist (the worst candidate of the entire lineup; I can’t believe THAT is who the left decided to prop up against DeSantis). It honestly feels like the Dems have completely abandoned us.

At my work, folks are generally nonpolitical. Lots of libertarian-esque ideologies, lots of folks who just aren’t really paying attention to what’s going on in Tallahassee, and an outright LOVE of DeSantis. These are folks who, from my observations, are very socially liberal, kind of passively conservative, and mostly not politically affiliated. And the Dems straight up gave them away.

I had to sit and watch as my close friend’s husband quit his teaching job out of fear of being sued by rabid parents because of his sexual orientation. I heard the quiet, whispering conversations with clients about the misinformation flourishing about “grooming” and litter boxes in classrooms. All the while, I personally self-censor for fear of what the repercussions to my job could be. That said, I love my co-workers and my bosses and I honestly don’t blame them for their leanings because in my eyes, the Dems gave up even trying to convince them otherwise.

The national Democratic establishment and the absolutely inept Florida Democratic Party gave the state away. I have tons of friends in the Hispanic community and absolutely all of them swing to DeSantis and Trump. Do I blame them? The Dems offered nothing in terms of substance to counter any of the nonsense DeSantis has been doing, nothing to actually show the damage some of these policies are having on our neighbors.

The appalling arrest of 20 citizens who were tricked into voting was turned into an election-integrity crusade that the left did nothing to counter. As a returned-citizen felon, I find what he did to these poor human beings to be about as grotesque, nihilistic, and cynical as it gets.

Again, I self-censor. I can’t come right out and say, “Hey guys, I’m a felon you know; that very well could’ve been me considering there is no actual process for restoring the ability to vote after finishing a sentence.” If my rambling means anything, it’s that the Dems are wholly responsible for this. They’ve truly given up on Florida and now we get to reap the benefits of an entrenched mildly autocratic party with no intention of staying true to democratic principles. It makes me wanna switch my affiliation to independent, which I’m only holding out on to vote in primaries for my preferred Dem candidate. Otherwise, my observation for the most part is that there is no Florida Democratic Party.

We are a solidly red state and will be for the foreseeable future.

Pam remains worried about the future of the GOP:

I’d like to thank Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger of the January 6 committee. Liz showed courage by bucking the sycophants in her party, knowing that it would cost her the election in Wyoming. She is a profile in courage. Together, she and Adam exposed the duplicitous Trump, the evil PR genius. He manipulated the press and they gave him too much coverage. The former president of CBS, Leslie Moonves, said, when he was asked about whether CBS would cover Trump, “It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS. He was correct.

The remaining question: What will the Republican Party do now? They had two opportunities to help the country rid us of the evil genius, but they chose to sit on their thumbs. If we fail to prosecute these evildoers, we encourage more white supremacy and vigilantism. We need to right these wrongs. Our failure to act will only cause further damage.

And Jerome critiques coverage of his local municipal election:

This morning, the day after the midterms, I noticed something interesting on local TV news in my city of about 1 million souls. Much is being made on the local news of the potential that the majority of the members of our new city council will belong to one racial or ethnic-minority group or another, thus creating a so-called majority-minority city council.

Except, based on the last census, that can’t by definition really be the case. Demographically, the city is currently 48.2 percent non-Hispanic white (Anglo in local parlance). All others are lumped together by the news media as minorities. So, in fact, the new city council will not be the advertised majority-minority council. Rather, we will find that the democratic process reflects the racial and ethnic makeup of people in a diverse city—a city in which the current majority is composed of individuals who were formerly identified collectively as minorities.

When racial and ethnic minorities become the majority, will they continue to define themselves collectively as minorities? Conversely, when the white (Anglo) majority becomes the minority, will it claim the minority label and the burden of grievance that goes with minority status? Six-and-a-half percent of individuals in our city report belonging to two or more races. In the past, because of our country’s history of racism, mixed-race children of Black and white parents claimed Black as their race by default. In recent years, many mixed-race young people have rejected classification and opted out of the racial-sorting game. As that cohort of the population grows, will racial political discourse become a relic?

Perhaps we need to reframe how we talk about race in politics. The way that people hear, interpret, and act on matters of race is based on the language we use and the framing of our argument. I believe that people of good will can find common ground once we acknowledge our shared humanity. We need to imagine the best we can do and keep it as simple as possible, with kindness, respect, and compassion as the hallmarks of our dialogue.

Thanks for all your emails, and see you later this week.